For us, the single most frustrating aspect of striving to be eco-friendly, is that there is no right answer, no silver bullet, no pinnacle of perfection to seek after. Even the most well-meaning solutions, which on the surface appear to solve one problem, often create another. So why try? In a nutshell, because innovation and problem solving in the face of a rapidly declining climate is vital, and we believe it will eventually get us on the right track. Currently, we feel like it’s important to shine a light on these issues and be on the front end of helping to educate about the apparel industry. Companies need to be challenged to move in a sustainable direction, and we hope we can play even a small part in that.
We always strive to be as authentic and transparent as possible, and in keeping with that commitment, we wanted to share the truth about the challenges of being earth-friendly in the apparel industry. As consumers we need to be smarter and to demand that companies look for alternative solutions to what is a highly wasteful and polluting industry, often rife with human rights and safety violations (for this reason, our apparel is all ethically and socially responsibly made in the USA (New York and North Carolina)). In this article, I will focus on eco-friendly fabrics and what they really mean. As I mentioned, there is no perfect choice, and we all have to decide where we’re going to land on the scale of what is most important to us, and in our minds does the least harm.
While this is a very general overview, I’ll address several popular earth-friendly fabric options that we use and break them down:
Organic cotton, as opposed to conventional cotton, is harvested without the use of GMO’s, pesticides insecticides or other chemicals that harm the environment and impact the health of farm workers. It does not require harmful processes to make it viable and it’s biodegradable. It can also help to maintain soil fertility through crop rotation, and organic farmers are inclined to invest more in protecting biodiversity and environmental preservation. On the other hand, cotton production in general requires a significant amount of water and is very demanding on soil. Since organic cotton is chemical-free, it is more prone to pests and has a lower yield than conventional cotton (more plants need to be planted in order to produce the same amount of cotton) so more land and water are potentially needed.
Where do we land? Organic cotton is a viable fabric option if approached as a work-in-progress. The health of farmers and the environment is paramount in our minds, and it’s important to note that there are innovators working in the fashion industry who are seeking to find solutions that support farmers and raise awareness, so that the current status quo does not represent the future of organic cotton. Supporting this practice, we believe, will make this fabric choice a more sustainable option in the future.
On the surface, Bamboo would appear to be the clear winner in the sustainable fabrics lineup, and for good reason. Bamboo is fast growing, it requires no chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides, and requires four times less water than cotton to produce. Oh, and it’s totally biodegradable, naturally moisture-wicking and antimicrobial. So what’s the problem? In order to convert raw bamboo to rayon or viscose, hazardous chemical products are required, and this is the source of consternation and controversy.
Where do we land? Bamboo still deserves it’s place as a top sustainable fabric contender, largely because of its many natural benefits, and the fact that there have been recent advancements made in the processing of bamboo fiber which uses a non-toxic solvent and produces non-hazardous effluent, which is a game changer.
Hemp is one of the most eco-friendly fabrics available. It is naturally disease and pest-resistant, fast growing and creates a very strong fiber, meaning your clothes will go the distance. It’s also takes only 11 weeks to mature, and requires no harmful chemicals to process (although some companies have sadly resorted to producing hemp fabric chemically which is much harsher on the environment, but faster and cheaper to create). It’s also biodegradable and naturally helps to regenerate the soil by transforming contaminated materials; some say it can help reduce global warming because it takes out larger amounts of carbon dioxide per acre than most plants. Hemp is a hardy plant that has a high yield and also helps prevent erosion. The cons? It is more expensive and often needs to be blended with organic cotton as on its own, the fabric is rough. Although it is known as marijuana’s “sober cousin,” regulations for harvesting, processing and transporting hemp apply.
Where do we land? Hemp is a highly sustainable, environmentally sound fabric choice with a bright future.
RPET (recycled plastic)
This one is complex, but deserves an open mind. Since China has stopped purchasing US recycling, there is a major plastics crisis in the US, and plastics are being sent to landfills because there is simply no demand for them. Apparel companies like Recover (https://recoverbrands.com/) located in Charlotte, North Carolina, are committed to addressing the plastics crisis by recycling discarded bottles into comfortable, sustainable clothing. That’s a win for sure! The flip side is that all synthetic fibers shed microplastics when washed, which are extremely harmful for our oceans and waterways. Finding a way to give new life to our mountains of trash is a good thing however, and with certain provisions, it’s a mindset that deserves our respect and support.
A lot of energy is saved when manufacturing recycled PET fiber versus virgin polyester fiber (not to mention the petroleum that is being harvested from the earth for the production of new plastic), and virgin plastic production is at an all time high globally. But is the byproduct just too damaging to consider RPET a viable sustainable fabric option? The truth is, all synthetic clothing sheds microfibers – everything from polyester, rayon and nylon share that flaw, so it is not simply problematic for recycled plastic. Fortunately, as with the other eco-friendly fabric options listed here, there are pioneers and trailblazers seeking to counteract the ill effects inherent in sustainable apparel production. Innovators are currently addressing this issue in various ways, with one example being Planet Care (https://planetcare.org/en/), who has begun testing an exterior filter that can be placed on any brand of washing machine to capture microfibers. Consumers can also purchase Guppy Friend bags that you can use to wash your clothing made from synthetic fibers, and which collect microplastics in the washing process (https://guppyfriend.com/en/). Another product, Cora Balls which you simply toss into your washing machine, do the same thing (https://coraball.com/).
Where do we land? Ultimately, we believe that it’s important to address the overabundance of plastic waste with the caveat that there are solutions on the horizon, not only for apparel made with recycled plastic, but for all synthetic fabrics that currently reside in our closets. We take the situation with microplastics extremely seriously, and will keep on top of developing innovations and offer info and tips as we learn about them.
Recycling cotton fabric scraps from the cutting room floors of factories (which would otherwise end up in a landfill) is a way to create apparel in a way that is significantly less impactful on the environment. Recover clothing company (https://recoverbrands.com/) is an example of a company that is passionately committed to using recycled materials to create their apparel, and they report that this process results in a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 66% reduction in energy consumption, and 55% reduction in water consumption compared to that of a conventionally dyed shirt.
Where do we land? We think this is a great idea in terms of its potential to greatly reduce water and energy consumption, as well as reduce landfill space. Like it or not, in the current life cycle of apparel manufacturing, there is waste, and any time that waste can be turned into something useful, that’s a win! Until these wasteful practices can be curtailed, solutions such as these seem only beneficial.
So where does that leave us? Perhaps the best way to approach any efforts toward earth-friendly living is to keep in mind the saying, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” Pretty much across the board, there is no 100% perfect way to live a sustainable, thoughtful lifestyle. When you factor in things like your carbon footprint, things get even more complicated, but it’s absolutely imperative that we try. Keep educating yourself and do your best. As a consumer for example, try to limit your use of plastics and harmful chemicals, keep our waterways clean, and experiment with a plant-based diet. Every effort you make is significant, and they all add up. The more we choose eco-friendly options, the more big corporations will have to listen and alter their current behaviors, which will make it easier for us to do our part. While we strive to do the best we can, much of the burden falls to our political leaders to pave a new way. Don’t be afraid to use your voice – we don’t have the luxury of time anymore.
We have recently felt a self-imposed pressure to choose one eco-friendly fabric to use predominantly for our apparel, but there are merits to many of the choices we’ve mentioned, so we will continue to use a variety of options while we walk this road. Ideally, a closed economy of recycled apparel that does not create virgin products would seem to be the ideal future. We’ll keep weighing the pros and cons as things change, and keep challenging ourselves to make the best possible decisions. We’ll also make sure to share what we learn. We’re all in this together! Remain hopeful and empowered! Together we can create a cleaner, healthier future, and a planet to be cherished by future generations.
Tracy Strandness, Owner/Founder